Zuckerman: Change begins with 'hearts and minds'
BENNINGTON — Real political power resides "in the hearts and minds of the people," Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman told a lecture audience at the Center for the Advancement of Public Action at Bennington College.
But the longtime progressive organizer, who served in the Vermont House and Senate before assuming his current post in 2016, also provided plenty of the nuts and bolts of participating in a democratic government.
His talk Thursday, "Having a Voice in Democracy," was part of the center's Democracy Under Siege fall series of forums.
While those holding office have an advantage in political power, Zuckerman said, no one should discount people "who put their hearts and souls into changing something, hopefully for the better."
Just by summoning the courage to espouse an untested view, he said, average citizens can inspire others to do the same. With the right issue, sometimes the ranks of advocates will swell, convincing lawmakers and gaining momentum to pass new legislation.
Zuckerman described for the students and area residents in attendance some of the legislative issues he's focused on over the years, which include renewable energy, protecting the state's waterways; raising the minimum wage, legalization of marijuana, GMO labeling; universal healthcare, marriage equality, and allowing end-of-life choices.
Speaking of what initially was known as the "death with dignity" bill, Zuckerman said he remembers surprising one early advocate by telling him that struggle could take six to 10 years before it made it through the Legislature and was signed into law by the governor.
"It takes time to get one of these issues into the top tier" of issues, he said, where it is considered along with the basic spending, economic or criminal justice bills that normally garner the most attention in Montpelier.
"Sometimes you think, `why would you ever do that?'" he said of the difficult, long-term commitment sometimes required, when an advocate might be subjected to the heated vitriol of political opponents.
But he said one of the rewards of the job comes when "those individuals that once in a while come back to you six years, 10 years, 12 years later and say, 'you did this back in 2005, and it impacted me or my family or my friends in some way.' That pretty much makes up for weeks or years of the other piece It can be very satisfying."
Unique, unfamiliar office
His current role, Zuckerman said, took some getting used to after two decades in the Legislature.
"You don't really know what it's like to be lieutenant governor until you are," he said. "It is somewhat administration but you also have one foot still in the Legislature."
The lieutenant governor presides over the Senate but can only vote to break a tie and doesn't participate in debates; he likened the job to that of a town meeting moderator.
And Zuckerman could act as governor when the governor is out of state or incapacitated, but the odds of the Progressive/Democrat taking over for Republican Gov. Phil Scott simply because Scott was away from Vermont appear slim.
During his first term, Zuckerman complained that he was essentially being kept out of the loop although technically a member of the administration — a situation that can occur when, as in Vermont, the governor and lieutenant governor are not elected as a ticket.
"In [political] offices, we are only as powerful as the voice that you give us," Zuckerman said. "I think each person serving as lieutenant governor has to find what that voice or that power is."
The office did give him an opportunity to expand upon what he's been doing for years outside the Statehouse as an organizer, "where I thought the power was outside the building, not inside the building."
So he said he focused outward to empower residents "as to how you can influence what is going on inside the [Statehouse]."
Zuckerman also described himself as a mouthpiece on issues, "and have a soapbox, and that soapbox is bigger than most others in the state."
Always an organizer
Zuckerman said he travels around the state working for causes and issues he believes in. In fact, he said, community organizer was his first and is still his most comfortable role in politics.
A basic way to influence policy and legislation, he said, is simply to convince citizens who are motivated on an issue to write to their local lawmakers. The reality, he said, is that lawmakers receive very few messages from constituents that are not obviously generated by some influence group urging members to send them — often in the same tell-tale format with different signatures.
But if a half dozen individuals write their own letters on a similar topic, that can impress a lawmaker or state official, he said.
Some political posts, like governor, president pro tempore of the Senate or Speaker of the House carry their own power and can shape the role the officeholder plays, Zuckerman said, and conversely that office can be shaped by the individual's actions or leadership style, especially after they gain experience and know what tends to work politically and what doesn't.
But then "sometimes it is just out of control," he added, "or just dumb luck," when the public embraces an issue just as certain lawmakers are making a concerted push for that legislation.
Influenced by Sanders
Zuckerman, 47, was not originally attracted to politics but was inspired to run for the House during the early 1990s by now-U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who was then Vermont's representative in the House. A key issue for him, Zuckerman said, was that Sanders would run for statewide office and not accept corporate donations.
Today, he said, the flood of corporate campaign financing in the wake of the 2010 Citizens United decision of the U.S. Supreme Court that protected such giving "is the most fundamental issue that has to be changed" in our political system.
Vermont office-seekers are actually lucky compared to statewide or congressional candidates in most other states, Zuckerman said, in that they "don't have to spend four or five hours every day" talking to potential campaign donors on the phone.
Corporate influence on the decisions of politicians through massive campaign donations is the "core corrupting" aspect of modern government, he said.
On the national level, he said, "one side cannot just unilaterally disarm" by disavowing corporate funding, meaning the national Republican and Democratic campaign committees. But Zuckerman is attempting to convince the Democratic Lieutenant Governors Association to do that — a change he hopes will build political capital for the party.
The campaign financing fund total for a group that recently was revived with an influx of new Democratic office-holders was in the $225,000 range, he said — an insignificant amount compared to other national campaign war chests.
Yet he is advocating for the group to declare itself "corporate free," believing a stand on the financing issue could help attract new supporters.
"In case you haven't noticed, I am a little tenacious," he said. "I play long ball and continue to work on it."
Always an optimist
Zuckerman described himself as "a perpetual optimist" who was especially encouraged by the results of the mid-term elections last month. Democrats, many of them progressives, won numerous seats in Congress and in multiple state governments, he said, and they now "think this can happen in every state out there."
In Vermont, he said, voter turnout was up, including among young voters, even without statewide races on the Nov. 6 ballot that attracted a high level of interest.
He called the results in Texas Senate race "a massive, massive victory," even though U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, the incumbent Republican, narrowly defeated Democrat U.S Rep. Beto O'Rouke, because of the momentum that race built in the GOP stronghold state and the millions in donations that O'Rouke raised.
In that and other races, people just have to understand "not all of these will be won in one election," Zuckerman said.
The next several years will be crucial in determining the direction of the nation, he said, adding that he sees widespread enthusiasm that could have an effect well beyond the personal popularity of former President Obama, which did not translate into gains for the Democratic Party.
"The numbers are not on their side," he said of Republicans. "But we have to put in the effort over the next 10 years."
Asked about Republican attempts in Wisconsin and other states to hamstring incoming Democratic legislative majorities or governors from overturning current policies, Zuckerman likened that to "when a tiger gets backed into a corner."
He added, "They are lashing out [by blocking Democrats] but all those things are changeable."
The 2016 election of Donald Trump as president and other Republicans in numerous states "was a wake-up call" for many who were too comfortable, Zuckerman said, which made people realize that "the system doesn't work automatically."
That was particularly the case for women, he said, as they suddenly felt threatened by the the national government and fearful over the results of that election.
Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal. Twitter: @BB_therrien
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